The attack was shameful

TED CORBETT

ENGLISH cricket lovers yearn for the return of the Ashes which have lain in Australian hands for 13 years and so, a few months before the next excursion to attempt to wrench them from the hands of the mightiest team in the world at this moment, all eyes during this Indian summer looked for signs of a continuing England revival.

By the time victory had been obtained in the first Test at Lord's, England fans who had been lifted by the 2-0 success against Sri Lanka, were buoyant. Surely now the Aussies would crumble in front of the mighty batting, the fine swing bowlers and the snappy fielding.

They accepted defeat at Headingley in the face of magnificent batting from the Indian middle order with good grace; after all England had beaten Australia unexpectedly last year on the same ground, it was known to be a result pitch and sometimes things went wrong. They felt they could afford to be magnanimous and the batting had been thrilling even though it might have been expected that any England medium pacer would have used the pitch more effectively.

"Defeat at Headingley is not the end of the world," said Nasser Hussain, the captain of England, but he added wryly that "defeat at the Oval would be a disaster". Instead it turned out to be a moment when the hard facts outweighed the hopes and expectations for anyone connected with England.

Worst of all was the slow realisation that on a Leeds pitch that might have been built for an English seamer, with movement that is supposed to threaten a slip catch off every ball, lift that grazes your knuckles, all under a sultry sky, five men bowled the wrong line and length.

They excused themselves by saying that it was difficult to adjust after bowling on so many flat pitches and others claimed the four had little experience at Test level.

I cannot believe what I have been hearing. This was precisely the sort of pitch on which men like Alfred Shaw bowled batsmen out in the 1880s, on which Maurice Tate made his name, on which Derek Shackleton and Tom Cartwright, Cliff Gladwin and Les Jackson, Tony Nicholson and Bob Platt won championship matches during the 1950s and 1960s.

Not all of these men are household names yet they all understood that when there was a touch of moisture in the pitch and cloud in the sky the ball would turn corners, curve neatly towards as many slips as you wanted and that with a new ball and a fresh arm they would expect to end the first innings long before tea was served.

Not this England attack. It was shameful. Not only did the Indian batsmen survive but Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly made hundreds and England lost by an innings. I could tell you what Fred Trueman thought as he sat in the Yorkshire committee room but I know several cricketers read The Sportstar and I don't want them to be upset by such colourful language.

Later, as the fourth Test developed, it was clear that England had been too conservative in their choice of bowler, that India comfortably matched the huge England first innings total of 515 against fast bowlers well short of searing pace and that a 1-1 drawn series was the right result. An Ashes-winning combination was some way off.

By the time the Press conference to announce the touring party was held at Lord's, the day after the fourth Test, the questioning was positively aggressive. It was clear that the exacting Indian response to England pressure had done more than draw a Test series. It had undermined the confidence England hoped to take to Australia. Talk of regaining the Ashes was forgotten; the whole mood was much more sombre.

Now no-one thinks there will be a triumph Down Under, mainly because the England bowlers have nothing special to offer save hard work and practised craftsmanship. Although the strength of their batting may save them from an Ozwash, a humiliating 5-0 wipe-out, there is only a tenuous hope that Steve Harmison and Simon Jones, two young fast bowlers, will suddenly up their game to such a degree that an ageing Aussie team collapse.

Even the normally upbeat David Graveney, chairman of selectors, could only suggest that "we have a realistic chance of regaining the Ashes."

We met in the car park afterwards. "I suppose you have slammed the selectors for their tour party," he grinned. "No, David, I have no great quarrel with the team. I might argue with your suggestion that England have a 'realistic chance'."

"Not a ball has been bowled yet, Ted. What did you expect me to say. Let's wait and see." And off he drove, to yet another meeting, to cast another shrewd eye over more young hopefuls, to be interviewed once more on the possibility of winning back the Ashes.

If England are beaten - and I feel it is inevitable unless the Australians show the weakness as they did when England last took the Ashes under Mike Gatting in 1986-7 - it will not be the fault of this amiable, hard-working and forever smiling chairman.

Graveney has brought facts and figures, logic and clear thinking to his role. He has allowed the coach Duncan Fletcher and Nasser Hussain the captain to have their way most of the time and he has organised Geoff Miller, the fourth selector and the searcher after new talent, so that no stone is left unturned.

What Graveney's workload, Fletcher's coaching, Hussain's inspirational captaincy and Miller's sharp eye cannot compensate for is the lack of talent.

England have strong batting, Alec Stewart, a superb wicket-keeper despite his 39 years and fast bowlers who on their day can provide a way into the opposition batting no matter how powerful. But there is no proven spinner other than the pedestrian Ashley Giles, no wrist spinner despite the efforts to find the English Shane Warne, and the fastest bowlers are too young, too often injured and too often persuaded by county coaches to cut down on pace in order to keep something for tomorrow in the relentless first-class programme.

One man might have made a crucial difference. Darren Gough, the finest England fast bowler since Bob Willis, has not played a first class match for a year, has been lost to the Test side throughout the summer and yet when he played in a handful of one-day internationals he showed that he can unlock a batsman's defences still as well as providing a sharp contrast to the more mundane speeds clocked by Matthew Hoggard, Andrew Caddick and Alex Tudor.

England's desperation to up the race for pace was shown by their decision to include Andrew Flintoff in the third Test even though they knew he needed an operation for a hernia. His reward, poor lad, was a pair and Sanjay Bangar's wicket for 68 runs.

Flintoff has lost weight, looks svelte, athletic and desperate to succeed yet he still has to prove his worth and in my opinion England will rue the day they decided to leave Craig White behind.

White's bowling may not be the force it was once but he is a better batsman than Flintoff and as a combination they offer an all-round performance in an era when the great all-rounders seem to have gone missing.

So the England search for a strong team continues. "The important place this winter may prove to be the Academy," said one senior administrator and he has a point.

The 15 youngsters who go to Adelaide for a winter's tuition, followed by an 'A' team tour to Sri Lanka, are the best in the country and for once that is not said more in hope than expectation.

"Every dressing room in the country resounds to the name of just one bowler," I was told recently. The name is James Anderson, a slim 20-year-old Lancashire lad, with as much pace as anyone needs and 44 wickets at 21.20 in his first full season.

Unlike the Yorkshire fast bowler Steve Kirby who received such high praise a year ago, Anderson places no reliance on a volley of abuse but his effect on batsmen is just as shocking. He, and Kyle Hogg, the slower, more thoughtful Lancashire bowler may be the mainstay of the England attack as soon as next summer.

If there is a breakdown, in either fitness or form, among the England players this winter, either or both might be fast-tracked into the England side while the Ashes are still glowing. So too may be Chris Read or Mark Wallace who, in the opinion of many good judges, are better wicket-keepers than James Foster, the official No.2 behind Stewart.

Foster is an extraordinary choice. He was picked - from Hussain's county Essex - for the tours of India and New Zealand last winter when Stewart stood down. His performances were not better than average. This summer he was given a contract for the home series and twice broke bones which meant that he played virtually no cricket until quite recently, Yet he will be part of the great Australian adventure. "Despite the criticism we feel he is the future," says Graveney.

Now that is where I take issue with the selectors. Read has been called "the best wicket-keeper I ever bowled to" by Stuart MacGill, the Australian leg spinner now with Nottinghamshire. Can Foster top that? No.

He may not have to prove his worth if Stewart continues to keep wicket and to bat as he has this winter.

At the Oval his portrait hung round the famous gas holder declaring that his final ambition was the return of the Ashes. That would be a surprise but a personal best show from Stewart might be England's best result this winter.